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Published:November 10th, 2009 23:19 EST
President Obama Visits Japan Part 1 (The Futenma Base Issue)

President Obama Visits Japan Part 1 (The Futenma Base Issue)

By Geoff Dean

 As the rain beats down on the narrow and dingy Tokyo street that passes in front of my house, I would like to consider the somewhat "stormy" US-Japan relationship in light of President Obama`s imminent visit to our shores. As an American living in Japan for some twenty years, I am always interested in Presidential visits and what they may mean to the "security alliance". And this time, the visit comes at a time of upheaval in Japan and points of potential friction.

 Some of the issues that may come up include the relocation of US Marine Corps Air Base Futenma (on Okinawa), PM Hatoyama`s "East Asian Community" proposal, child abduction issues, and Japan`s contribution or lack thereof to the war in Afghanistan, among many others. For this offering, I want to take a look at the Futenma issue.

 First of all, one must understand that the Hatoyama Administration has based a lot of its policy plans on Okinawa. The Democratic Party of Japan swept all the Diet seats in Okinawa largely on the basis of the "Okinawa Vision" proposals enunciated by the PM, including greater Okinawa autonomy, visa-free tourism from Taiwan and most importantly, a "drastic" reduction in US military bases and presence in the prefecture. (A recent poll showed that 80% of Okinawans want all or most US bases out of the islands and only 4% supported the current Futenma relocation plan). The mayor of Ginowan, the city where the contentious Futenma Air Base is located, Yoichi Ita, as well as, Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima, have strongly urged the Hatoyama Administration to resist US ultimatums (one was recently given by Defense Secretary Robert Gates) that renegotiation at this point could seriously damage the bilateral relationship.

 The Futenma Base is an especially intrusive one in the middle of Ginowan city, producing noisy flights in and out of the city at all time of the day and night. Beyond the local irritation, though, the bases in Okinawa have become highly unpopular all over Japan. There have been a string of rape and other crime incidents committed by US service members in Japan, including a hit and run case just yesterday in Okinawa. The image, rightly or wrongly, is that the worst elements of US society are being given free rein on the streets of Japan, especially Okinawa.

 Critics of the Hatoyama policy, including University of Tokyo politics professor, Fumiaki Kubo, claim that this confrontational approach on the Futenma issue  is "throwing away the opportunity" to improve relations and risks damaging "Japan`s security" and US support on the North Korean abduction issue. He goes on to say that it may not be "possible to reverse" the Futenma plan at this late date. (The current plan is to relocate the Air Base`s facilities to Camp Schwab, further north on Okinawa Island, with Japan picking up the tab for the move.)

 Furthermore, there has been some inconsistency from the newly minted Hatoyama Administration, with the PM seeming more flexible on the move in some comments and then taking a harder line in later ones. Similarly, the new foreign minister, Katsuya Okada, had floated an idea to move the facilities to Kadena Air Base in Japan, but now seems to be focusing on moving them to Guam.

 Perhaps the biggest problem in all of this is that we have a brand new and inexperienced Hatoyama Administration, a fairly new and fairly inexperienced Obama Administration, and in the middle, a US Ambassador to Japan, John Roos, who has no diplomatic experience whatsoever, dealing with these complicated matters. Not surprisingly, there have been some stumbles and bumbles all around.

 Still, the US-Japan relationship is too important to be felled by what is ultimately, for the US, at least, a minor matter of an air base of limited importance. If Japan was demanding the removal of all bases in Okinawa or Japan, which they are not, the US would be adversely affected, but losing Futenma completely, if it shores up our friendship with a new Japanese administration, would be, in my view, a small price to pay.

 Finally, President Obama has promised to listen more than previous administrations and work through diplomacy and consultation with allies, multilaterally. Japan has never challenged the US before, but this may be the best time for the Hatoyama government to push for a "more equal" relationship of "fraternity", as the PM recently put it. The big question is whether PM Hatoyama will stick to his guns in the face of US opposition or whether he will back down. This will determine not only the success of this Presidential visit, but the long term survival and success of the Hatoyama Administration, if the opinion of one long time expatriate and amateur political observer amounts to anything.